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Our over-concern with risk is an accident waiting to happen

editorial

In the charming French documentary film Etre et Avoir about a small country school, we see a teacher taking his charges tobogganing on a local hillside. Later, on a summer outing, a little girl is lost in a cornfield for a while. Nobody is unduly worried. One reaction to this is: 'It would never be allowed here, ' as our litigious and risk-averse culture places more restrictions on activities on a daily basis. So bad has this become that education secretary Ruth Kelly was this week forced to tell teachers that, if they followed proper guidelines, they should not be afraid to take their classes on outings.

CABE has also reacted to this over-caution, noting how 'the country's towns and cities are being shaped by a culture of risk aversion'. We are notoriously bad at appraising risk, for example in our terror over 'stranger danger' compared with risks closer to home. CABE's concern in its report, What are we scared of? The value of risk in designing public space, is that we are so worried about getting rid of risk that we are both constraining our public spaces and, paradoxically, making them more dangerous (see page 10). For example, geographer John Adams argues in the report that removing segregation between drivers and pedestrians makes drivers more conscious of the people around them, and so reduces accidents. At the same time, it removes much of our ugly street furniture.

Charles Landry writes that this over-concern with risk 'subtly encourages us to constrain aspirations, act with over-caution, avoid challenges and be sceptical about innovation. It narrows our world into a defensive shell'. Not only does this have a deleterious effect on the aesthetic nature of our public spaces; it also takes away our ability to learn how to deal with risk. And the best and most loved spaces are often the accidental ones, colonised for example by risk-taking skateboarders.

The end result of risk aversion could be an environment that is so bland, and yet of which we are so afraid, that there is no reason to go out at all. Leaving us more susceptible to inhaling dust mites, poisoning ourselves with ready meals, tripping over our trousers and becoming obese couch potatoes.

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